Information Warfare: Smart Phones At War

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October 5, 2011: As quickly as the U.S. Army is moving to develop and adopt a battlefield smart phone, it is actually just trying to keep up with its troops. Civilian firms (both defense oriented and otherwise) have noted this troop interest and quickly come up with solutions to problems the army believes are in the way of deploying a battlefield smart phone. These proposals include solutions for security and lack of a signal. The big problem the army has is not a lack of solutions, but figuring out which ones to adopt. Meanwhile, troops are taking their phones into combat. And even without a signal, they can use all sorts of useful apps. Some of these are civilian applications, but others were created by troops, for chores they wanted to automate. And when the troops do get a signal, the phones become even more useful. Even the brass have been impressed.

Meanwhile, there is no shortage of ideas for apps (applications, programs, software). The most widely popular have to do with simply letting troops know where they are, and where the enemy is believed to be. GPS in the smart phone provides the location, the army has plenty of digital maps to use on the smart phones, and local headquarters have reports of where enemy forces are, or are thought to be. Making this stuff available to all troops, all the time, is a big lifesaver, and stress-reliever. There are also apps that enable smart phones to collect fingerprints, and quickly let you know if the guy you have just caught is worth keeping. Another firm has an app that would allow smart phone users to control small UAVs. Another app allows users to share video feeds from nearby UAVs, or from anyone else with a military smart phone. Commanders can quickly draw up a plan for an operation and send it to subordinate commanders (down to team leaders, who run five man infantry teams). This saves time, and on the battlefield, that saves lives. 

Then there are the iPads. These are already being adopted by officers and troops, without waiting for permission. Combat pilots in Afghanistan have, like many businesses, discovered new and useful ways to use the iPad. U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilots found the iPad a useful way to carry hundreds of military maps, rather than the hassle of using paper versions. Marine commanders quickly realized this "field expedient" (a military "hack" that adopts something for unofficial use while in the combat zone) worked, and made it official. That meant buying iPads for this and getting to work coming up with more uses. Meanwhile, support troops that have to handle a lot of data, are finding ways to get it done on iPads. This is pretty simple for technical troops who rely on lots of manuals. They are often already available in PDF format, and can easily be put on an iPad. But the iPads are basically hand-held computers, and can do so much more. The troops are making that happen themselves.

All this is nothing new. Last year the U.S. Army decided to establish an app store (the Army Marketplace) for military smart phone users. This includes the iPad, which soldiers are also big fans of. The army app store includes an "App Wanted" section where users can post descriptions of an app they need. If a developer (in uniform, or an army approved civilian with access to the Army Marketplace) is interested, a discussion can be started on an attached message board. The army hopes that the needed app will be quickly created and made available at the Army Marketplace. Developers can charge for their apps, although the army is also willing to pay developers to create needed apps that have been described by military smart phone users.

One of the more impressive apps was one that assisted troops calling in air and artillery fire. Specialized, and now portable, computers have been used in the military for decades, to help troops who call in artillery fire, or air strikes. But these "forward controllers" have to lug around a lot of gear, as they move, often on foot, with the infantry they support. Every bit of weight counts. The less you carry, the more energy you have for life-and-death tasks. Now, there is an app for that, and the forward controllers can leave behind gear that has now been replaced by an iPhone app.

The army and marines see these portable devices as key battlefield tools. Not just for communication, but for a wide range of data handling (computer) chores. Some of these apps turn the iPad or smart phone into part of a weapon. The military wants to work closely with Apple to ensure the troops get the software they need, as well as customized hardware. Details are largely kept secret. But now the military knows, for certain, that creating lots of these apps requires more time and effort than many troops can muster. Then there is the problem of maintenance (upgrading and fixing bugs). So the army is going to establish a team to take care of this, using some army personnel and contractors as part of a permanent organization.

This is all part of a trend. In the last decade, the U.S. military found the iPod music player an increasingly useful tool. This happened for two reasons. As time went on (the iPod was introduced just after September 11, 2001), more and more troops bought iPods. By 2005, most troops had them. The iPod was the perfect entertainment device for the battlefield. When you got a chance to take a break, you put in the ear buds, turned it on, and were in a different place for a few minutes. The iPod battery usually kept going until the next time you got a chance to recharge.

The second reason was that, from the beginning, the iPod could do other things (run software for things other than listening to music). That's because the iPod was, basically, a very small personal computer. In fact, the iPhone is basically an high end iPod (sold as such as the iPod Touch), with cell phone capability added.

At first, most of the other iPod software was games, but soon non-game applications were added. There was a problem for the military, however. Except for some skilled hackers, no one but Apple, or with the help of Apple, could create software for the iPod. Despite that, the U.S. Army had some military software written for the iPod. This worked well, but it took over a year to get new software for an iPod, a delay that did not encourage rapid development. That changed three years ago, when Apple opened its App Store, and released a tool kit (SDK) for programmers to develop software for the iPhone and iPod Touch. This meant that military programmers could create Touch software to suit their needs, and do it quickly. In less than a year, hundreds of military-specific Touch programs have been created. Many do not show up in the App Store, as they are only for military use.

The Touch, and now the $500 iPad, have become the new "most favorite gadgets" for the troops. The Touch is cheap (under $230), has the same interface as the iPhone, has several hundred thousand programs (and growing rapidly) available, and can also serve as an iPod (to listen to music or view vids). The Touch has caught on, and it does the job better than any earlier PDA. The Touch also has wi-fi built in, making it easier for the troops to get new software or data onto their Touch. The iPad is basically a larger Touch, and popular for reading magazines, and consulting technical manuals. Troops have long been reading books on the iPhone and Touch. Now, smart phones are becoming increasingly common, so much so that few troops will go off to war without one. And the smart phones get smarter every year. As of 2011, your average smart phone has the computing power of a ten year old laptop.

 


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